On paper, responsibility for the defence of the the Kingdom of Denmark is pretty simple. Defence, together with foreign affairs, remains a power that cannot be devolved to Greenland or the Faroe Island. As a result, Copenhagen funds and maintains a standing military, a reserve and a home guard that are responsible for protecting all three constituent countries.
Reality is of course less clear cut. Over the years, Denmark has begun consulting with the devolved governments before making military decisions that affect their jurisdictions, in part due to a realisation that military and civilian planning can sometimes be at odds with each other. Most recently, this process was formalised with the establishment, in 2021, of a co-ordination committee that is made up of representatives of all three countries and chaired by the Danish PM.
What remains unclear, however, is when Copenhagen should begin discussing matters with Nuuk and Tórshavn, how much talking should be done and, crucially, what happens when there is a dispute.
Last February, for example, Copenhagen, in connection with a decision to spend a 1.5 billion kroner (€200 million) to expand airspace surveillance in Greenland and set up a training programme for Greenlandic recruits, thought it had lived up to its end of the bargain by consulting with decision-makers in Nuuk and by including wording that the final outcome would be shaped by Greenlandic input.
As it turned out, after the Danish legislature adopted the measure, members of Inatsisartut, the national assembly, said they had not been fully informed; a newly elected government that came to power two months later said it was reserving judgement until it had reviewed all of the details of the spending to make sure it was in keeping with its goal of keeping Greenland demilitarised.
The matter has yet to be resolved. Working it out what had started off as a purely domestic dispute will not be made any easier by Russia’s war against Ukraine. A Danish decision to increase the country’s defence spending to levels that would see it meet Nato recommendation of 2% of national income, a near doubling of the current budget, has Greenlandic lawmakers wondering whether some of that money will go towards countering hypothetical Russian expansionism in the North, and wondering why they were not consulted with ahead of time.
The decision, which also includes a referendum on whether Denmark should participate in the EU’s defence policy, was agreed on amongst Danish lawmakers days after open conflict broke out. How the money will be spent must be agreed on, but, should Arctic defence spending be made a consideration, Greenland will be consulted, Mette Frederiksen, the Danish PM, has promised.
For now, though, the threat is mainly to Europe, and, for that reason, she argued, there is no reason to involve Greenland. “This is a national compromise in Denmark. Changing the Danish budget and dropping the defence opt-out is a very Danish matter.” Simple enough.
Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal
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